What We Know About College Students to Help Manage COVID-19

By Dr. Brent Roberts, Professor of Psychology and Director, CSBS

Higher education has been hard at work confronting the problem of how best to open up this fall during the COVID-19 pandemic. It strikes me that a critical component that has been missing from this planning is an understanding of the population we are working with, students, and how the requests we are making to students do and do not fit with their modal characteristics. As we create and change plans over the next year, it might be prudent to condition those plans on who we are asking the most of. We need a psychograph of sorts to understand better the potential effects of any interventions we might implement to manage COVID-19 in this academic year. 

To that end, I offer up the following overly simplistic psychograph of the typical undergraduate population. We know a decent amount about undergraduates. After all, that appears to be the only population psychologists study (1), and it would be tragic not to employ that knowledge when considering the changes we plan for the fall.

So who are we dealing with? I’ll provide a broad brush stroke in characterizing the typical college undergraduate (who is not much different than the typical 18 to 21-year-old) and highlight what I believe to be three key subgroups who possess constellations of qualities that we might want to consider when making plans for the fall. 

From a wide range of studies, we know the following about college-age students. Remember, these are averages. There are, by definition, exceptions. 

  1. Physically, they are at the top of their game. According to “Them,” our physical skills peak around age 24 and start a long slow slide from there.
  2. Mentally college-age students possess a peak power to manipulate information (2). They have yet to acquire their peak amount of information–that comes with age and experience–but their minds are, relative to other ages, sharp and agile.  If you want someone to power through mentally taxing material, college-age students are ready for the challenge.
  3. Motivationally, the average college student, relative to older populations, is blessed with an abundance of energy and enthusiasm. If anything, they can be burdened with too much enthusiasm. Of course, that is another feature of the college experience that we feel to be so important–that students get the chance to explore and invest and discover and through doing so find their path forward. Inevitably, that experience will lead them to winnow their aspirations and focus more strongly on fewer options going forward (3).
  4. Characterologically, college students have only just begun on the path to the maturational changes that most people agree to characterize the typical adult. After all, that’s why we feel so passionate about in-person education because we know that it sometimes serves as the crucible in which to foster the acquisition of the social, emotional, and behavioral skills that we all value in an informed citizenry. What this means is that the typical college student is equipped with ample physical, mental, and motivational skills, but still has some work to do on social and emotional skills. Succinctly, college students, relative to older individuals, are less warm, conscientious, and emotionally stable (4). On the flip side, they tend to be, relative to older populations, a bit more narcissistic, impulsive, and prone to emotional swings (5).  
  5. In terms of psychopathology, we also know that this is a time of vulnerability (6). It is during this time of the life course that most forms of psychopathology peak–depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance use disorders. Thankfully, most people overcome these challenges with age. Nonetheless, college-age students, despite their many gifts, also possess some sharp edges that have yet to be worn down with the grit of experience. 
  6. I’d like to emphasize three subgroups of students that both demonstrate the variability in the typical college population, but are also very important to consider when we think of the policies we are going to implement because of COVID-19.           
    1. First, one subgroup could be characterized as the non-compliant (low conscientiousness, low agreeableness, & high impulsivity). These are the students who will, at the very least, ignore our pleas to use masks, socially distance, and avoid large gatherings. At most, they will be willful and question authority. Steinberg covered these students very nicely in a recent editorial in the NY Times. For these students, working against the rules of authority is not an anomaly, but their right and responsibility. And, higher education is their benign authority figure to rail against. For that matter, as educators we often foster and expect undergraduates to act in objection to our rules. That’s part of the experience of higher education. At the very worst, these students spend their time blowing things off and often do so through substance use and abuse. These students are not the ones ready to listen when we say to wear a mask, keep your distance, and don’t congregate in large groups. These are the students who will congregate without masks for parties exactly because we tell them not to.
    2. The second subgroup, the high achievers, occupies the opposite end of the constellation of qualities. These students are studious, highly motivated, and are concerned with their performance in our classes because they have serious long-term goals–to be a doctor, scientist, engineer, or entrepreneur, for example. Their vulnerability lies in the fact that they may be more than willing to do things that may end up hurting them vis-a-vis COVID-19, but for what we might think are laudable reasons. 
    3. The vulnerable make up the third subgroup. These students are those who are more vulnerable to the stress that comes with uncertainty, and COVID-19 ratchets up the uncertainty in ways we cannot anticipate. Estimates of upwards of 40% of college students bring with them increased vulnerability for various psychological challenges such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and various other issues. These students will be at increased risk for problems when the university opens up in the fall.

To understand how this psychograph might be relevant to our COVID-19 efforts, we need to consider just what those efforts might be. For the sake of clarity, I’ll use the University of Illinois plan for managing the COVID-19 pandemic. 

  1. Students are being asked to get tested before they come to campus and again once students arrive on campus. We have built a fast, effective testing regime and largely, we are dedicated to testing our way through this pandemic
  2. Students will be tested twice a week. Each student will get a schedule for which days they should get tested so we can more evenly distribute the burden across testing sites and people.
  3. Once students have been released to their dorms and apartments and school commences, they are being asked to wear masks, almost all of the time–in the dorms, in the hallways, in the bathrooms, on the way to get food, on the way to class, in class, in any meetings with faculty, in any gatherings with other students.
  4. When students do meet for either classes or extracurricular activities they are being asked to keep their distance as much as possible, especially when they meet indoors.  
  5. Students are being asked to use the Safer in Illinois app, which allows for fully secure, privacy-protecting, Bluetooth tracing of social contacts. So, if someone in their social circle gets sick, they will be notified without revealing anyone’s identity. Then, they can take the appropriate action, which will be to quarantine and get more testing.
  6. The Safer in Illinois app also asks for students to record their physical symptoms which may provide an alternative way of catching COVID-19 cases. If they show a preponderance of symptoms, they will be asked to quarantine.   
  7. The Safer in Illinois app will also gather and store their testing history which will be used to manage access to buildings and classes. Students who test negative will get permission to enter buildings and will continue to be granted access if they keep up with their COVID-19 testing. If they don’t get tested regularly, their access to buildings and classes will be denied.
  8. Students in the dorms who get sick with COVID-19 will be provided with alternative living quarters so they can be isolated from their roommates and suite mates. Once a student is ill, they will have to stay in place and be taken care of, as having them travel would put other people’s health at risk. 

So, in a nutshell, we are asking students to be 1) conspicuously more organized and disciplined, and to take a lot more highly regulated actions, at least in relation to health and symptomatology, 2) be much more socially isolated than before given social distancing and group restrictions; 3) commit to serious communitarian behaviors and attitudes that would be needed in order to comply with many, many additional requests from campus, and 4) tolerate much more uncertainty than normal. 

Given what we know about students in general, it is clear that this these requests do not fit with their existing set of social and emotional skills. We are asking students to be disciplined, conscientious, and compliant to degrees not typically found on college campuses and at levels not typically asked of students. By opening up and hosting in-person interactions with thousands of students, we are also creating a lot of uncertainty for everyone involved.  

How would these demands mesh with the different psychological groups identified above? We already know what will happen in the case of the non-compliant student. In the inimical words of one undergraduate “there must be a way around this.” Their approach to our existing campus requirements is to avoid complying and to proudly thumb their noses at our requests. In the current circumstances, we are asking them to be much more diligent than ever before, which will probably lead to some uncooperativeness. The real danger with this group of students is not only that they will be contemptuous of our requests and gather in groups and socialize as they did before, but that they’ll simply opt-out of our system altogether. After all, we are also trying to accommodate every student by making all classes available via zoom or other platforms.  Effectively, that means if you don’t want to come to class, you don’t have to. I could imagine that students who do not want to be so disciplined in their approach to school and to continue the summer camp-like approach to higher education would simply avoid our system, hang out with their friends, socialize, and become reservoirs for the Coronavirus.

The achievement-focused student may pose a threat to the community for the opposite reason. Being focused on complying with faculty in order to get good grades, they may be more likely to hide the fact that they are sick, and continue to go to class, and by doing so transmit the disease to other students in classrooms, hallways, and offices. Some of the more extreme policies mentioned above would inoculate this issue, such as reporting symptoms daily and continuous testing. But that, of course, assumes that these students would be honest when reporting their symptoms. Oddly, the high achieving student may pose the greatest risk to faculty and staff as they may be more inclined to come to class, office hours, or other face-to-face interactions because they are under the impression that they need to make a good impression to get that A or get that stellar letter of recommendation.

Finally, the students already vulnerable to the stress of uncertainty will only experience more stress. With COVID-19, seemingly innocuous everyday occurrences are now highly stressful, anxiety-provoking experiences. Being around lots of other people is now a serious concern. Because the U.S. currently lacks clear leadership and clear cultural values around these issues, the norms surrounding social interactions are rife with conflict. The choice of going to a gathering can cause stress and conflict between friends if one views the situation as problematic and another views it with aplomb. These are stresses layered on top of the typical uncertainties faced by undergraduates, such as finding new friends, achievement anxiety, and being away from family. Then, there is the prospect of acquiring COVID-19 itself. What if they get sick? What if their roommate gets sick? An innocuous decision, such as housing students in double occupancy dorm rooms, could have problematic consequences. What does a student do when, and if, their roommate does not share their safety concerns and flouts the recommended safeguards? What if that student then tests positive for COVID-19? Their roommate, already stressed by the school and the student’s behavior, then has to deal with the reality of having to quarantine themselves and the possibility of also getting sick. 

How do we use this information?

None of this information countermands recommendation like those found in the CDC guidelines for how to manage a pandemic. We should all aspire to be transparent, honest, consistent, and humble in our approaches to managing this crisis.  

That said, judicious investments can be made based on the knowledge of how our students will behave. That a significant proportion will be inclined not to comply with centralized, inflexible mandates from university leadership can inform the policies and programs we create. It seems, for example, that many institutions are bringing students back based on the assumption that their students will fall into place and comply with mask-wearing, social distancing, and testing (if available). This seems naive at best and foolish at worst. It seems unavoidable that  non-compliant students will return to campus and return to old ways and go to bars and parties with multiple, unmasked friends and up the risk of superspreader events. These students will then become the reservoir of COVID-19 that flings out repeated waves of infections to their community. While outbreaks may not risk the well-being of students very much, they will have potentially catastrophic consequences for university communities and especially older individuals who live therein. 

What should we do about the non-compliers? Social science offers recipes for carrots–monetary incentives, bingo boards, token economies all meant to increase cooperation–and recipes for sticks–sanctions including being suspended that might modify their inclinations and behaviors. The almost constant testing provided by the University of Illinois is another attempt to manage the unmanageable. If we keep on top of the likely sources of COVID-19 we may be able to contact trace and quarantine enough to keep from experiencing an unmanageable outbreak. But, of course, if these students turn around and become so uncooperative that they simply avoid our efforts, they will render ineffective our attempts at control.

At the very least, I believe that we need to plan for the existence of the non-complying students and that they will make up a bigger chunk of our student body than we care to admit. If we do, our models and prognostications will be far more realistic.

What of the high achievers? How do we avoid having them come to class when they are sick because they feel they need to show us how motivated they are to do a good job?  Largely, I think this is on the professoriate. Some of us tend to be a little, shall we say, “hard-nosed.”  We reward high effort, or the appearance thereof, with good grades and praiseworthy letters of recommendation. We lionize the student who works the extra hour or comes to class despite being sick. It might be in our best interest to reconsider this approach, at least temporarily, so that students will be forgiven, if not praised for doing something as uncharacteristic as staying home when and if they feel the onset of any symptoms. This will be especially important for those schools which do not open with a robust testing program (i.e., the majority of schools in the U.S.).

Finally, what can we do for the vulnerable student? The answer is obvious, but costly.  We need to ramp up our mental health resources to handle the inevitable outbreak of mental health problems.  Of course, in a context where schools are seeing their real-time budgets shrink precipitously because of the pandemic, it seems hopeless to argue that we need to spend money we do not have.  Of course, administrators may want to consider the possibility that bulking up their mental health system will reap real benefits because it will help keep students in school.  

In summary, our university communities face an unprecedented situation in the COVID-19 pandemic.  We are all finding our way in the dark, trying to make the best of a challenging situation.  Our students are unique, wonderful, and complex, but they are not a complete mystery, and some of what we know about them can and should be used to shine some light on our situation.

References

(1) Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). Beyond WEIRD: Towards a broad-based behavioral science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 111.

(2) Deary, I. J., Corley, J., Gow, A. J., Harris, S. E., Houlihan, L. M., Marioni, R. E., … & Starr, J. M. (2009). Age-associated cognitive decline. British medical bulletin, 92(1), 135-152.

(3) Atherton, O. E., Grijalva, E., Roberts, B., & Robins, R. (2020). Stability and Change in Personality Traits and Major Life Goals from College to Midlife.

(4) Soto, C. J., John, O. P., Gosling, S. D., & Potter, J. (2011). Age differences in personality traits from 10 to 65: Big Five domains and facets in a large cross-sectional sample. Journal of personality and social psychology, 100(2), 330.

(5) Hill, P. L., & Roberts, B. W. (2012). Narcissism, well-being, and observer-rated personality across the lifespan. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(2), 216-223.

(6) Kessler, R. C., Amminger, G. P., Aguilar‐Gaxiola, S., Alonso, J., Lee, S., & Ustun, T. B. (2007). Age of onset of mental disorders: a review of recent literature. Current opinion in psychiatry, 20(4), 359.

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